Mayor Anthony Williams is listening.

It is late February, seven frenzied weeks into an administration under pressure to show progress on everything from Washington's overabundance of rats to its lack of democracy. He looks tired. He looks hunted. He doesn't have enough hours in the day.

But the mayor makes time for these visitors, a group that is penciled into his schedule for one hour on the last Thursday of every month. Individually, the people facing him around the table are unremarkable. A few pastors from scattered congregations. A retired letter carrier from Anacostia. An attorney from upper 16th Street NW. A reading tutor from Brentwood in Northeast. A children's advocate from Georgetown. They are Protestant and Catholic and Jewish. Black and white and Latino. West of the park and east of the river.

Individually, they have not much money, little political experience, even less power.

But together, the dozen or so people at the table -- and more

like them all around the city -- are something called the Washington Interfaith Network.

WIN.

Yet another organization, you might say. Four years old. The requisite cute acronym. Meetings and fliers and good intentions and "vision." Enough already.

Except that unlike the usual frettingly ineffectual and isolated neighborhood commissions, civic associations, block clubs and sidewalk outrage artists, WIN is about to help shape the city's destiny. Right now, around this table with the mayor.

Williams is listening, pecking at a breakfast muffin, scratching neatly on a yellow pad with a mechanical pencil.

"We've identified sites," John More, the attorney from upper 16th, is saying, "on which a significant number of houses could be built."

On the mayor's right is Richard Monteilh, thin and intense, the city's director of housing and community development. Hired in 1997, he has won good reviews in some quarters, but WIN has considered him an archenemy for opposing one of the group's most cherished goals, city support to build 1,000 houses for low-income residents to buy.

WIN sees the proposed developments -- called Nehemiah homes after the Old Testament figure who rebuilt Jerusalem -- as a way to curb the flight of families from a city with one of the lowest rates of home ownership in the nation.

But Monteilh has dismissed the Nehemiah neighborhoods as low-income "reservations."

WIN asked the new mayor to referee the dispute and summon Monteilh to this meeting. After years of being stonewalled and ignored by politicians, bureaucrats and developers, the group felt it finally had some muscle. Before the meeting, Martin Trimble, a WIN organizer, asked some of the clergy, "Who's going to listen to Monteilh's confession?"

The Rev. Lionel Edmonds, pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Shaw, offered to do the honors.

"But no gloating," said More, an Episcopalian.

Now, at the meeting, Monteilh says Nehemiah developments would anchor vibrant communities and he announces the appointment of a top aide to shepherd the project.

"What we're doing is a very noble goal," he says. "The key now is to get one or two sites to get started."

There is a short silence. The doubting housing director has just performed a perfect policy back flip.

Edmonds, keeping his characteristic sly smile under wraps, says: "I want to commend you, Mr. Monteilh, for getting in the driver's seat and pushing Nehemiah homes."

"I appreciate what you're saying," Monteilh replies. And in the spirit of the politico-religious miracle that is in the air, he adds: "I've been converted by the mayor."

Not only has the mayor commanded Monteilh's epiphany, he has also put $3 million into the city budget for construction of Nehemiah neighborhoods, pledged millions more the following year and penciled in yet another meeting -- an April 19 mass rally with WIN -- to, among other things, celebrate victory on the affordable homes.

Edmonds smiles beatifically. "The Lord," he says, "works in mysterious ways."

The ways of city politics are less mysterious. There are no heavenly miracles, only those wrought by years of earthly organizing and base-building. Blessed are those with the most juice, for they shall inherit the office, the job, the policy, the obscure line in the budget.

A good idea, by itself, is a waste of breath. A righteous plan, lacking the clout to implement it, is like the tree that falls in an empty forest: Doesn't make a sound. Failing to grasp this principle is the mistake made by generations of idealists, reformers and third-party candidates.

It's a mistake WIN intends to avoid.

Four years ago, WIN leaders set out to claim a seat at the table for the city's powerless. Today when the group's members pull up a chair across from the mayor, he comes to attention. Ruth Wilson, the reading tutor from Brentwood, presents a glossy photo of the filth in her neighborhood, and Williams visits her house two days later. Benjamin Contee, the somewhat shy former letter carrier from Anacostia, has a slightly overwhelmed but proud smile before a meeting to talk about affordable housing. "I have led different organizations, but not like this, where you're dealing with the mayor," he says. "This is all new."

Before the mayoral election last year, WIN's army of Ruth Wilsons and Ben Contees won five pledges from Williams. He promised 900 community police officers to be deployed in neighborhoods; $30 million within four years for after-school programs citywide; funding for 1,000 Nehemiah homes with a groundbreaking by Easter; serious consideration of a living-wage ordinance, typically defined as $8 to $11 an hour on city-subsidized projects; and work toward restoring home rule.

Insisting these are more than mere campaign promises, Williams, since the election, has been working steadily with WIN to get most of them achieved. It's a mutually productive relationship. WIN gains an ally on its priorities, while Williams obtains access to a dedicated grass-roots constituency.

"They haven't gotten a lot of traction with the traditional approaches, so they're coming up with a high-octane, high-accountability approach," Williams says. "And like my high-octane, high-accountability approach, a lot of times some of the plates get smashed and people get rubbed the wrong way. But I admire their intention. I share their goals."

WIN is an alliance of 45 congregations across the District, representing about 20,000 families. It has a paid staff of three and an annual budget of $250,000 raised from dues-paying member congregations. Wary of elevating a single charismatic leader, it has three clergy co-chairmen who serve limited, unpaid terms as well as a rotating cast of clergy and lay leaders who lobby officials on specific issues. Its goals are pragmatic -- that is to say, achievable -- but not trivial.

"No sense having 45 churches and all you accomplish is screwing in a street light bulb," says Edmonds, one of the co-chairmen. "There's a larger darkness out there that needs to be addressed."

The group's style is a striking marriage of Realpolitik means and love-thy-neighbor ends. Tough talk -- even shouting -- is preceded and concluded by prayer. This sweet-and-sour mixture is a product of WIN's heritage. The group was launched by the Industrial Areas Foundation, an organization founded by the late radical community organizer Saul Alinsky. But Alinsky's secular brand of puckish, pragmatic activism is tempered by the religious ethos of the congregations that make up WIN.

To swaddle a hurting city cracked by fissures of race and class, WIN has woven a garment of many colors, incomes and faiths. "This is the most integrated group I've been before in a long time in Washington, D.C.," a surprised Mayor Marion Barry said to a crowd of 1,400 people at WIN's first mass rally in June 1995.

The District has never lacked for those who would advocate social change, but the quirks of its peculiar political construction have turned the normal relationship between activists and the establishment on its head. Against whom do you agitate, when the fledgling home rule government is in the hands of the agitators? And who, in the end, is really in charge? The mayor and the D.C. Council? Congress? The control board?

Into this confusion comes WIN, with a model for how realistic results might be achieved.

Critics, including activists with much longer track records than WIN, say the group is pushy, unwilling to collaborate and even somewhat naive.

"There's a little bit of my-way-or-the-highway attitude they have," says Jim Schulman, an ally of WIN's in opposing the garbage industry's warehouse operations in Northeast neighborhoods. "It's great when you're locked head to head on an intractable issue, like trash transfer stations. Then their methods and approach are very appropriate. When you're putting together a [city] budget, which is a very complex thing, they don't always understand the nuances of the issues."

And WIN has struggled to live up to its interfaith ideal. Jewish participation has come only recently, and the first potential Muslim members are still being courted. WIN also is seeking broader representation from the Latino community.

Down in the lobby of One Judiciary Square, after leaving the meeting with the mayor, the members of WIN are jubilant over the breakthrough on the Nehemiah project, and they begin planning for the April rally. The moment of success in the mayor's office looked almost easy, but it was years in the making.

"If we did not do all the organizing," says the Rev. Joseph Daniels, pastor of Emory United Methodist Church, "if we did not build the tension, if we did not bring to bear the realities we were experiencing, then that moment would never have happened."

At century's end, the word "organizing" has a quaint, newsreel quality about it. One pictures the strikers in Flint, Mich., sitting down against General Motors in 1937, or Cesar Chavez's farm workers standing up to the California vineyard bosses in 1965. But WIN's analysis of why social action crusades so often fail is precisely that they aren't "organized" enough. With this in mind, the group has dusted off traditional techniques and tried to recharge them.

Saul Alinsky demonstrated the potential of rallying the dispossessed and focusing their anger in 1939 when he organized residents of the rundown neighborhoods behind Chicago's stockyards to obtain better public services. Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation exported his methods to blue-collar neighborhoods in cities such as Kansas City and Buffalo. Retailing his philosophy in a cheeky handbook called Rules for Radicals, Alinsky skewered the dogma of the left and right and counseled a pragmatic, theatrical and sometimes witty approach to activism. "The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power," Alinsky wrote. "Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."

By the time Alinsky died in 1972, the IAF was rethinking its tactics. Alinsky had organized around neighborhoods and their issues. But suburban flight depopulated the old wards, and urban neighborhoods were no longer the stable places they had been. If the neighborhood couldn't be the unit of organization, what was left?

The church.

One of the IAF's first examples of church-based organizing was Communities Organized for Public Service -- COPS -- founded in 1974 in San Antonio. "They saved the city," Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of housing and urban development, told The Washington Post a few years ago. Since then, the IAF has helped launch more than 60 such groups across the country, including the Interfaith Action Communities in Prince George's County, BUILD in Baltimore, and a nascent effort in Montgomery County called Action in Montgomery.

The IAF conceives of community organizing as a never-ending process of educating and motivating communities. It takes extreme commitment and discipline -- as a couple hundred people gathered at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Northeast are about to discover.

It's a Saturday morning in January, and the would-be activists, drawn from dozens of congregations around the city, are sitting on folding chairs after fueling up on coffee and doughnuts. This is an introductory training session for members of WIN congregations who want to become more involved.

Unlike other interfaith coalitions that operate mainly through elites, WIN seeks to activate as much of the flock as possible. "You don't want six liberals in each congregation to come forward and have those be your organization," says one organizer. "You want conservatives and moderates, too."

The training session opens with two self-conscious indicators of WIN culture and discipline. First of all, it starts promptly at 9:30 a.m. Punctuality is a very big deal for WIN. It is a reminder that, to the members, this is important work.

After a prayer, members take turns standing and calling out their names and congregations. Introductions are common at public functions, but at a WIN gathering they take on an incantatory momentum as people of different faiths, races and neighborhoods sound off. Simply by announcing their presence they neatly underscore what is uncommon about WIN.

Asbury United Methodist, Chevy Chase Presbyterian, Israel Baptist, St. John's Episcopal, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic . . .

At the front of the room are Martin Trimble and Lottie Sneed, WIN's two professional organizers. Trimble, 42, came to organizing after impatiently pushing paper in the nonprofit world for some years, while Sneed, 47, is a former social worker who helped organize in Baltimore and Prince George's. Both possess an almost supernatural gift for the ubiquity required by their current profession.

Trimble begins to outline the world according to WIN, and, for the crowd of mostly middle-aged church-goers, it is strong stuff.

There are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.

WIN does not hold grudges. Political conversion experiences are honored at face value. WIN also is not blindly loyal.

Then there's the Iron Rule.

Never do for others what they can do for themselves.

The Iron Rule, says Trimble, lies somewhere between the "liberal rule" of "give everybody everything and don't expect anything" and the "conservative rule" of "work hard, pull yourself up, we'll give you a tax credit, but we're not going to give you a living-wage job."

The Iron Rule applies internally as well: Congregations and individual members are supposed to share the responsibility for activism, lobbying officials, raising turnout for meetings, planning events. Without the Iron Rule, a committed few would do all the work and the organization might present an impressive facade, but it would be hollow within.

All of this goes down well with the audience. Now Trimble turns to the concept of power.

"Why are church people so uncomfortable with power?" he says.

Voices respond from the crowd: "Power corrupts."

"We have a belief that the meek shall inherit the earth."

Trimble is ready for this. He invokes another WIN axiom.

Power is the capacity to act.

Power comes in two typical forms, Trimble explains, organized money and organized people. WIN seeks to organize people.

On a sheet of white paper on an easel, Trimble sketches the WIN cosmos. He draws a line down the center. On the right is the "world as it should be." On the left is the "world as it is." In the world as it should be, the operating ethic is love. In the world as it is, the operating ethic is power.

What WIN can do, Trimble says, through the faith and values of its members, is bring a little love to the principled use of power. Power cannot create love, but it can create love's analogue in the world as it is -- justice.

"So often in our organizing, we encounter people in despair," Trimble says. "They don't believe anything can change. They are powerless . . . Together all of us might build a little power to bring a little justice to the world."

Hmmmmmm. The folding-chair audience ripples and rolls, trying to soak all this up.

The group splits up to participate in workshops. Now the novices must learn what WIN leaders call "the most radical thing we do," which is "the lost art of the individual meeting."

An individual meeting is where two people tell their stories and begin to build a relationship in half an hour or less. It's a casual yet calculating recovery of human relations in the e-mail age. It's how new leaders are identified. It is also how WIN spreads through congregations and spans races and classes and faiths. WIN and its agenda were built on thousands upon thousands of individual meetings across the city.

After a member has had eight or 10 individual meetings, he or she holds a "house meeting," bringing together those individual meeting partners, who are encouraged to have more individual meetings, and so on. This is organizing.

Hmmmmm.

The Rev. Bill Kelley, associate pastor at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, raises his hand. He's a firm supporter of WIN, but he has a question about this individual meeting rigmarole.

"I'd like to just play the devil's advocate for a minute," he says. "I've been in lots of groups, trying to advocate for change, and they didn't involve getting to know each other first."

It's a good point -- no one wants to get sucked into a bunch of New Age touchy-feely stuff -- and Trimble uses it to drive home a last important point about WIN.

WIN believes its hopes for achieving lasting power for the powerless rest on building a broad, permanent organization, possessing a culture, mores and discipline. The internal relationships, which begin with individual meetings, are critical, because someday the issues will fade. What happens after there are 1,000 Nehemiah homes and 900 foot-and-bike-patrol officers? Issues are a shaky foundation upon which to build an organization, while relationships are a solid rock.

"The Federal City Council," says Trimble, naming a powerful

business-dominated group that mayors of Washington have always heeded, "has dominated this city for 45 years. They're well organized and financed. Our challenge is to be in this for the long haul the same way they are."

The undercover surveillance vehicle is a white Chevy Lumina. It is parked on W Street NE in Brentwood. The operatives inside are wearing hats that make them look like church ladies.

Because they are church ladies.

Ruth Wilson (tan felt broad-brim) and Rosalee Collins (long-billed chapeau embroidered with elephants) are armed with a yellow pad and a pair of high-powered binoculars. The target across the street is a trash transfer station operated by Browning-

Ferris Industries.

Garbage warehouses like this one are the bane of Northeast neighborhoods. Trash from apartments, businesses and other institutions in the city and suburbs is carried here in trucks and transferred to tractor trailers for the trip to out-of-state landfills. Residents say the operations are filthy, smelly, illegal health hazards. The owners say they are legal and necessary. WIN wants Williams to shut down the BFI operation.

It's 7 a.m. on a drizzly Thursday, and Wilson and Collins are counting trucks and checking license plates. The two women live a few hundred feet away, on 13th Street NE. In between calling out the states -- "There's a Maryland!" "Virginia!" -- they keep up a steady commentary on what they say the garbage station has done to their neighborhood.

"The rats and possums and raccoons are running on our street," Wilson says. "And the flies! I don't see many sea gulls this morning. But some mornings I look out and I see a cloud of sea gulls here and flying over our houses."

This is a WIN "action," as members call it, a disciplined operation taken in order to elicit a specific reaction. Some actions resemble standard protests, such as the day last summer when congregation members temporarily blockaded the entrance to BFI, and the December D.C. Council meeting when they wore sanitary masks to highlight the garbage issue.

Today's surveillance is in preparation for a meeting with Mayor Williams. The trash controversy is not on WIN's core agenda, but it is a case where an individual congregation feels strongly enough about something that other congregations are called in like an airstrike.

Applying principles learned at WIN training sessions, Wilson, Collins and allies at nearby Israel Baptist Church organized residents into shifts to count the trucks. Other neighbors were assigned to keep journals of when they notice smells, noise, rodents and other problems. Wilson obtained city records of recent regulatory citations against BFI.

By 9 a.m., when one of their neighbors comes to spell them, Wilson and Collins have counted 27 trucks entering the station. At day's end, the tally will be 180.

Wilson, 72, and Collins, 63, have been fighting BFI for years, and they say WIN has made a difference since it joined the effort.

"I think they have a tremendous amount of power because of the number of people and the number of churches," says neighbor Pola McCorkle, 52. "Another thing about WIN," she adds, "there is no color issue. No matter what neighborhood it is, black and white come together and support the cause. That's hard to do, and WIN has seemed to pull it off."

Calvin Smith, spokesman for BFI, denies the claims of WIN and Wilson about the impact of the facility on the neighborhood. He says the streets nearby are clean and the smell is minimal to nonexistent. He also suggests WIN is hypocritical: "Ask these churches who picks up their trash," he says, noting that it ends up in some trash transfer station -- if not in Ruth Wilson's neighborhood, then in someone else's.

One week later, Wilson brings her bundle of evidence to a WIN meeting with Anthony Williams. She tells the mayor about the truck count, the diaries detailing close encounters with rats, the technical infractions cited by the city. She produces an 8-by-10 photo depicting something wet and matted and dead.

"This is an opossum?" asks the mayor.

Bingo.

"We need to go over there and visit sometime this weekend," the mayor tells an aide.

Two days later, a Saturday, Tony Williams arrives at Ruth Wilson's door a little before 11 a.m. Together they walk down to the trash transfer station. She wants him to say when he'll shut it down, but he won't commit himself. He does say he'll return to the neighborhood.

Four weeks later, Williams is standing before about 100 people in the basement of Israel Baptist Church. He pledges more resources to allow city inspectors to increase their vigilance.

"Bear with us," he says. "I think we can get this under control."

Wilson is pleased. She allows herself to think that maybe superior power is on her side. She's a little concerned that every time she sees Williams, he makes promises, but she hasn't yet seen results. She looks forward to the upcoming April rally, when she hopes Williams will announce some results.

For many years, IAF organizers longed to cultivate the District. A successful effort in the nation's capital would put the group's ideals in the national spotlight. Nehemiah homes in Washington would get more attention than they have in Brooklyn or Baltimore. And as a byproduct of congressional oversight, District issues -- a living-wage bill, for example -- might get debated on the elevated platform of the House and Senate floors.

But despite the attraction, the IAF avoided the District for the better part of two decades. The city was just too strange.

As the IAF's experiments in faith-based organizing were taking shape elsewhere, the District elected a home rule government in 1974. Activists like Marion Barry and Julius Hobson Sr., founder of the Statehood Party, joined the first D.C. Council. The progressives were in the palace. Four years later, Barry, perhaps the most sensational community organizer Washington has seen before or since, was elected mayor.

One result was a disorienting climate for activists. "Not just Marion, but his team of advisers had all been organizers and skilled at building coalitions," says Howard Croft, former chairman of the urban affairs department at the University of the District of Columbia. "That's what made Marion Barry a powerful mayor. He was skilled at co-opting community organizations because he understood the process."

Yet the seeds for an attempt to organize Washington were being planted at the Howard University School of Divinity. Lawrence N. Jones, then dean of the school, believed that the activism of the civil rights era needed to be ignited in a new generation of urban pastors. The message took root in a number of his students, including Joseph Daniels, Lionel Edmonds and Darrell Macklin, who were destined to become the co-chairmen of WIN. If Alinsky's earthy working-class organizing provided one strand of influence for WIN, a vision of carrying on the 1960s crusade for social justice was an even more powerful inspiration for the trio of young pastors.

Macklin, now 41 and pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church in Northeast, was an information systems manager on the fast track at AT&T when he felt called to enroll in divinity school. "The civil rights movement had a great impact on us," he says now, "but we were more students of it. What we've been afforded the opportunity to do is ask where do we go from here? How do we take the energy and passion and success that came out of that and take it to the next level?"

Edmonds, 40, the son of a union factory worker in Fort Wayne, Ind., was searching for a way to address the institutional causes of injustice. "I hope we can be a catalyst to show a national model for urban renewal," he says. "Every generation has its battles to fight and we are battling ours now."

Daniels, 39, was so impressed with the potential of community organizing that he almost became an organizer instead of a pastor. The call of the pulpit ultimately was stronger, but he resolved that the strategic idealism of organizing would inform and enrich his ministry.

In the early 1990s, a handful of local clergy, including Daniels, asked the IAF to take a look at the District. (Edmonds and Macklin would get involved later.) Barry was out of office, and neighborhoods seemed more besieged than ever.

The IAF assigned the job to Arnie Graf, 55, a soulful and savvy veteran of organizing in San Antonio, Atlanta, Baltimore, Prince George's and elsewhere. The IAF has a policy not to work in a city unless clergy and lay people from at least two races and four denominations are committed to the effort. The fall of Barry had left Washington more racially polarized than ever, and Graf treaded carefully.

At first, Graf, who is white, met separately with groups of white and black clergy. Many could not wait to get started. But some white clergy were worried that their congregations would be scapegoated for all of the inequalities in the city. And some black clergy were dubious that white congregations would truly put themselves on the line for priorities in black neighborhoods.

Overcoming some of the white fears was made easier once it became clear that leaders of some predominantly white denominations -- including Cardinal James A. Hickey, Episcopal Bishop Ronald H. Haines, former Evangelical Lutheran bishop E. Harold Jansen, former United Methodist bishop Joseph H. Yeakel -- supported the IAF organizing, because of their denominations' positive experience in other cities.

Many of the black clergy belonged to less hierarchical denominations, however. To address their concerns, Graf invited the Rev. Vernon Dobson from Baltimore and the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood from Brooklyn -- both of them respected leaders of IAF-

inspired groups -- to a meeting with about two dozen local clergy.

"They came down to relay assurances to black pastors that this can be done without sacrificing who you are, this can be done without compromising your people," Daniels says.

The process continued at individual meetings across racial and denominational lines over many months around the city. Events were purposely held in different neighborhoods, so the traveling road show would move around town. At the close of one meeting in Mount Pleasant, another was set for Georgetown, and participants chuckled when someone jokingly asked whether the neighborhood was safe for visitors. Many whites found themselves seeking out addresses in Anacostia for the first time. Out of these early meetings, blacks and whites said, they began to weave the strands of relationship that provide the strength of WIN's fabric to this day.

After two years of quietly building the groundwork, WIN held a coming-out party in June 1995. With the 1,400 people crammed into Israel Baptist Church, Barry made his amazed remark about the diversity of the crowd. But under his breath up on the dais, he said something else.

Nodding at Graf, Barry asked Daniels why the black pastors were working for that white man.

"Mr. Mayor, we don't work for him," Daniels replied. "He works for us."

The coming-out rally was a high point, but the organizing never stopped. According to IAF discipline, two more years of patient work were required to build a strong enough base from which to start trying to influence public policy.

Around this time, the complications of activism in the District came to a head. Congress withdrew some of the mayor's authority and vested it with the financial control board. Where was the pressure point for a group like WIN?

"You didn't know who had, quote, power," Daniels says. "Congress, the control board, Barry, the Federal City Council? . . . We felt for a while we were a ball in a pinball machine. You'd go to one, and they'd bounce you to another. But for the strength of our organizing, we would have been one of those balls that go through the flippers and the game is over."

The situation was grave enough that WIN leaders contemplated suspending the effort when it was just getting started. But the member congregations were so outraged over the assault on home rule that WIN did the opposite: It took the unprecedented step of accelerating the organizing process by a year. At another rally in May 1996, the congregations turned out more than 2,000 people, including Cisneros and Hillary Clinton. And WIN announced the five-point agenda that had emerged from thousands of individual meetings: Nehemiah housing, community policing, after-school programs, a living wage and restoration of home rule.

Progress was slow. From local officialdom, the reaction was, "Who do these people think they are?" People in power refused to meet with WIN, and when they did schedule a meeting, they would keep WIN cooling its heels long past the appointed hour.

WIN members were sedulous students of the psychology of meetings. And the group's first rule was: If they keep you waiting too long, get up and walk out.

"We walked out on I don't know how many folks when we first got started, because they didn't respect us," Edmonds says. The list included Barry, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the control board, executives from sports mogul Abe Pollin's organization. "Part of the discipline is, your time as a citizen is just as important as anyone else's time," Edmonds says.

Once Barry was so rattled by the tactic, he sent an aide dashing down to the lobby of One Judiciary Square to stop WIN on the way out the door, according to Edmonds.

Given their grasp of the semiotics of meetings, WIN members knew they were in trouble the day they were in a confab with Barry and a developer whom they were battling, and the developer went over and started giving Barry a neck rub. Talk about a power play.

It was the spring of 1997, and the developer was Michele Hagans, who controlled development rights on a swath of verdant public land in the Fort Lincoln neighborhood where WIN wanted to erect Nehemiah homes. Hagans, whose late father had been a major supporter of Barry's, was reluctant to relinquish the rights to the land because she wanted to develop market-rate housing.

But the group persisted in pressing the idea. Relying on its main strength -- numbers -- WIN turned out more than 100 people in the rain outside One Judiciary Square. Upstairs, Hagans and Barry signed an agreement in principle to allow the Nehemiah initiative to go forward.

It would have been a great victory, except the consummate organizers neglected to do one thing: organize.

Nobody had bothered to tell the residents of Fort Lincoln about WIN's plan for their neighborhood. One of those WIN failed to contact was Bob King, who, as advisory neighborhood commissioner and head of the civic association, might well be called the King of Fort Lincoln. He first read about the Nehemiah plan in his morning newspaper. It sounded to him like a lot of poor people and cheap housing were about to be plopped into the middle of his neighborhood.

In fact, according to WIN, the $80,000 semi-detached homes for families earning $24,000 to $48,000 would be attractively designed, and renting would be forbidden, so everyone would have a stake in keeping the neighborhood stable.

Nevertheless, King proceeded to teach WIN a little something about organizing. Within days, there was a neighborhood rally. Next came a Fort Lincoln recall-the-mayor campaign. Barry blinked. Pretty soon the Fort Lincoln plan was quietly shelved.

"I never had such a display of arrogance as I've had with the WIN group," King says now. "They forgot there were some people here."

Daniels says his hat is off to King. "He did a great job. We learned a very powerful lesson. We made the assumption that people in the community would see the benefit of this without doing the in-depth community organizing we needed to do. That will not happen again."

After the battle of Fort Lincoln, WIN regrouped and continued working on the rest of its agenda. It lobbied for the removal of police chief Larry Soulsby, saying he was unresponsive to communities. It started after-school programs at three schools, sending in volunteers from member churches to work with the children. WIN's school activism was so effective it won an award from the influential Parents United. And WIN began to organize union members and unemployed people on the living-wage issue.

The group also came up with a strategy that transformed it at last into a player the politicians could not ignore.

Launching a "sign up and take charge" campaign last year, the congregations collected more than 18,000 signatures to demonstrate support for WIN's agenda. Then they invited the candidates for mayor to mass meetings and asked them to endorse each of the five items. Those who balked on an issue got a "no" on report cards WIN distributed to voters by the thousands.

In a season of dozens of candidate debates, nobody could pass up WIN's sessions, because WIN always turned out the most voters. The experience reminded Tony Williams of the Star Chamber, or standing on a scaffold. He said yes to every item on the agenda.

WIN had proved it could extract promises from politicians. But could it ensure that the promises would be kept?

On a Monday evening, April 19, the sanctuary of Israel Baptist Church is packed. The purple-padded pews are so full that people are moving up to sit on the cushioned chairs reserved for the choir, which is crooning rapturously that "this is the day that the Lord hath made."

The scene bears a passing resemblance to a political convention. Sections of delegations are identified by large signs -- except these signs list the names of congregations. The church seems draped with the coat of many colors that is Washington.

At a planning session the day before, WIN members pondered the theme of the rally. "It should be a mixture of celebration, but there's a lot of hard work to be done," said WIN member John More.

The WIN people were aware that Williams had been battered in recent weeks on issues from budget priorities to the fate of the University of the District of Columbia. He needed support, and WIN is always happy to back an ally on the issues they have in common. But at the same time WIN wanted to make clear that the group won't be blindly loyal to Williams the way some activists were perceived as being beholden to Barry.

There are no permanent friends.

The rally begins right on time.

Since the source of WIN's power is organized people, the first order of business is to show off its numbers. One by one, representatives of each congregation come to the microphone and tell how many people they pledged to have attend, and how many actually showed up.

St. Paul Baptist, 70 pledged and 70 here! Dumbarton United Methodist, 50 pledged and 39 here! St. Columba's Episcopal, 10 pledged and 13 here! Jews United for Justice, 30 pledged and 21 here! St. Anthony Catholic, 50 pledged and 52 here! Mount Lebanon Baptist, 50 pledged and 80 here!

The aggregate pledge was for 1,000 people to attend. In a few minutes, the actual tally is announced: 1,070. And more are still outside looking for parking.

Honored guests are recognized. Williams is in a high-backed chair near the altar, his face wearing its customary mask of slightly tense frowning. Eleanor Holmes Norton gets a thunderous standing ovation -- she no longer keeps WIN waiting at meetings. Police Chief Charles Ramsey, Soulsby's successor, is in the front row. He has been meeting regularly with WIN in recent weeks to discuss community policing.

Only one council member is present -- Harold Brazil -- which is a bad sign, because the council must pass the mayor's budget, including funding for after-school programs.

And who is that in the front row? Why, it's Richard Monteilh! A WIN leader introduces him to the crowd. Monteilh rises, waves and bows slightly. He gets loud applause.

There are no permanent enemies.

WIN co-chairman Edmonds comes to the lectern to say a few words. He recalls for the crowd the pre-WIN days, five years ago, when congregations were starting to organize a new kind of social action group in Washington. It reminds him of a story, he says. The story of David and Goliath.

"Like David, five years ago we knew that it would be impossible to defeat the giant problems of the District by employing the failed strategies of the past," he says.

But through organizing, the people came up with a five-point agenda. Edmonds compares this agenda to David's five smooth stones. "Goliath, you may yet be standing," he tells the crowd, "but we're here to tell you that we're going to tear your kingdom down."

Now Ben Contee, just returned from advanced 10-day organizer training with the IAF, gives a short talk on Nehemiah housing.

A few other WIN members speak, and then it's time for More to introduce Williams. "WIN leaders have seen a 180-degree change in the attitude of District officials" since Williams took office, he reports. "Allies do not own each other," he cautions, but "we now have a mayor who is willing to be an accountable ally on the WIN agenda for a better Washington."

At this, close to 1,070 people rise to their feet and applaud. Williams's face relaxes as the sound washes over him.

The mayor briskly steps up to the lectern. WIN's leaders think they know what he's going to say. They think he's going to reaffirm his faith in the five smooth stones and go on record about what he's done to load them into the slingshot.

The mayor begins with some nice observations about democracy in D.C., and about WIN. "What you should be proudest of here today, and proudest of everything you're doing, is the fact that you represent the resurgence and rebirth of community in our beloved city."

Then he goes on and on. And on. He's talking in very general terms. He says a lot of warm and fuzzy things about his commitment to children. Parenthetically, he hails WIN's after-school idea but he does not specify how it will be accomplished.

This is beginning to sound like a campaign speech. Williams is soaring toward the end of his allotted 15 minutes and he's only mentioned two of the five smooth stones -- democracy in D.C. and after-school programs.

Arnie Graf is pacing along the left side of the sanctuary. He huddles with Trimble, who passes a suggestion up to the leaders at the altar. They have already been thinking the same thing. It might be scaffold time.

Edmonds, Daniels and More hold a quick whispered caucus in their seats behind Williams. They decide now is not the moment to get tough with the mayor, at least not in a way that might be embarrassing to him.

Instead, they scrawl a polite but firm note and pass it to Williams. The note grants him a little more time and suggests he should try to get back to WIN's issues.

"I've just been reminded by my hosts that I only have five more minutes," Williams says to the crowd.

He takes up community policing. He states his commitment to reassigning more officers to neighborhood patrol -- though not the 900 WIN is seeking. He suggests the community police officers may need to patrol in cars sometimes, not exclusively on foot or bike, as WIN demands.

Williams next reports that victory for WIN on housing is coming soon. The Nehemiah plan will be "the cornerstone of rebuilding our neighborhoods." Sites will be announced shortly.

The mayor doesn't mention the living wage.

On one of WIN's most important sub-issues -- cracking down on the garbage station just a few blocks from Israel Baptist -- he is silent. A disappointed Rosalee Collins is sitting in the audience, while Ruth Wilson is home sick, seething in her bed. She doesn't know yet that Williams has failed to mention the trash issue tonight, but she does know his staff hasn't responded to her letters. "The mayor's not doing anything like he said he was going to do," Wilson will say later.

But, all things considered, WIN decides the mayor is doing his best, for now.

Macklin takes the lectern to say as much in a rising, rocking bit of old-fashioned Baptist preaching.

"Our mayor ought to be given much credit," he begins quietly. "Accountability also means that we have to be realistic and flexible as well. The mayor has worked very hard, and the nature of politics is that not everything goes according to schedule."

And by the end, his voice rising, the cadence shaking the room, Macklin evokes the shining city that WIN wants Washington to be. "This is the city set on a hill. It is Northwest and Southeast coming together . . . Let us stand now and be the city that sits on the hill."

After the mayor has departed and the sanctuary is empty, about 40 people cram into a tiny classroom in the basement of Israel Baptist. Trimble is at the front of the room with his white easel and marker pen. He asks for quick impressions of the rally.

"Euphoric."

"We could have done better."

"Room for improvement."

"We can always do better," Contee says.

Sitting and standing around the room, WIN members are excited but drained, groping for ways to understand exactly what it is they have wrought.

A few years ago, every person in this room was isolated in his or her own neighborhood and congregation, fighting lonesome battles. Now they have built a citywide network to be reckoned with. They have a mayor who claims to be pursuing each item on their agenda, with some evidence to back up his claim.

They have a seat at the table.

Yet look closer, and where are they? The mayor is straying a little bit on community policing. The after-school proposal did come out of his office, ahead of schedule even, but it still needs work. Groundbreaking on Nehemiah housing was supposed to be Easter, which has come and gone. Williams has regained some home rule powers, but that's hardly something WIN can claim credit for. And the mayor has yet to consider a living wage.

"I have a little concern that we don't turn into a Mayor Anthony Williams booster camp," says Elin Whitney-Smith, a member of St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. "We don't want to be co-opted."

Yes, but don't forget the progress made, others chime in. Consider this: Counting the admittedly vague youth initiative and Nehemiah funding over a few years, the mayor is proposing to spend more than $40 million on programs that WIN has made top priorities.

"Remember where we were," Trimble says. He believes that tonight WIN demonstrated its "political maturity" by granting the mayor some flexibility on fulfilling every detail of his promises.

And yet, he adds, "We've got to have allies beyond the mayor . . . Let's build the base."

Everybody knows what that means. WIN members must visit council representatives and business leaders, turn out for public hearings, sign up new congregations.

It is time for more individual meetings. More organizing.

And many years hence, when these issues are resolved, and these politicians are retired, replaced by new issues and new politicians, the network might yet endure, a creation of strong bonds and smooth stones.

Thus are miracles prepared in the world as it is.

David Montgomery is a general assignment reporter on The Post's Metro staff.

CAPTION: Police Chief Charles Ramsey, far left, standing with Rhonda Macklin and Theresa and Roy Dixon at WIN's April rally. Above, a 1998 WIN gathering.

CAPTION: Through the principled use of clout, WIN aims to gain a place at the table for the city's powerless. Above, WIN members, citing the smell and truck traffic, protest the Browning-Ferris Industries trash transfer station in Northeast. Below, volunteer Carol Wheeler with children in a WIN after-school program at Wilson Elementary, also in Northeast.

CAPTION: WIN attracted Hillary Rodham Clinton and dozens of local clergy and politicians to a May 1996 rally in Northwest in support of its agenda. Top, the first lady addresses the gathering. Above, Clinton and then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, far left, listen as the Rev. Joseph Daniels of Emory United Methodist Church speaks.

CAPTION: Mayor Anthony Williams addressing WIN.

CAPTION: The Rev. Lionel Edmonds, pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church.

CAPTION: The Rev. Darrell Macklin, pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church.